When Ben Simmons left Wednesday's matchup with the Washington Wizards with an apparent knee injury, the onus was on Joel Embiid to drive his team to a comeback. He did so. He'll have to do all that and more now, as reports emerged that Simmons elected to undergo surgery to fix the subluxation of his left patella and will leave the bubble.
It'll now be entirely up to Embiid to power the Sixers to any kind of playoff success, the first time he's been in this position in his career. After the initial news of Simmons' injury, I wrote that his absence might actually be a net positive because Philly can now surround Embiid with shooters and everyone will fall in line behind him, rather than forcing the issue to involve Simmons, as they occasionally tend to do during the playoffs. My theory shall now be put to the test in a bigger way than I initially anticipated.
Theoretically, it should work. Embiid's conditioning shouldn't be a problem after he had nothing to do but work out for the last four months, an issue that has arisen in previous playoff appearances. As Draymond Green said on Inside the NBA yesterday, nobody can stop him from getting to his spot. He's just too big and strong. Without Simmons clogging the restricted area, Embiid won't feel obligated to settle for jump shots, which is the easiest out for any opposing defense and they'll take it every time. Running everything through Embiid in the low post should open up opportunities for everyone else, and he's a good enough rim protector to help overcome the loss of Simmons' elite perimeter defending.
However, he Sixers' presumed new starting lineup of Embiid/Al Horford/Tobias Harris/Josh Richardson/Shake Milton has only played 53 minutes together up to this point. They're great offensively with a rating of 125, which would have been the best in the league by a large margin. But defensively it was disastrous; that group posted a 124 defensive rating in their minutes together, which would have been by far the worst mark in the NBA. Given the relatively small sample size, it would be safe to assume the defense will balance out a bit. Milton is the only bad defender of that crowd. In the same vein, they won't be as elite offensively unless Horford really finds his touch from deep.
Taking a look at the larger picture, in five games without Simmons this season (excluding a late February matchup against the Cavs where he only played seven minutes), Embiid averaged 31 points per contest. That number is buoyed by a 49-point performance against the paltry Atlanta Hawks, but even without that, Embiid averaged 26.5 points per contest sans Simmons. He'll need to do that and more offensively when the playoffs arrive, and he'll have to be immaculate defensively. Most importantly, he needs to stay on the floor. It's not within his control, but Embiid has suffered from various injuries over the course of his career that have regularly impacted him.
If he gets lucky with his health and dominates on the block, the Sixers still have a chance. But Embiid has never faced this burden before. It'll be the test of his career so far, and Philadelphia's hopes rest entirely upon the outcome.